Boris Vian

Boris Vian

French novelist and playwright, a jazz connoisseur and critic, Dixieland trumpeters, and author of more than 400 songs. As a writer Boris Vian is perhaps best remembered for his novels L’écume des jours (1947) and J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946, I Spit on Your Graves). Vian’s collected works amount to more than 50 vols. He died in a Parisian cinema at the age of 39 while watching a preview of the film I Spit on Your Graves. It was a story of a black man named Lee Anderson, who avenges the lynching of his younger, darker skinned brother by raping and killing white girls.

Boris Vian was born at Ville d’Avray into a bourgeois family, that lost much of its wealth in the Depression. At the age of 12 Vian developed rheumatic fever and later he contracted typhoid which left him with an enlarged heart. However, it did not prevent him from pouring his energy into a number of artistic projects later in his life. Vian was first educated at home. At the age of 17 he learnt trumpet after seeing Duke Ellinton play. He studied philosophy at the Versailles lycée, and excelled in mathematics at the Lycée Condorcet, receiving a civil engineering diploma in 1942. During the 1940s he was employed for a time by the French Association for Standardization, a bureaucracy, which Vian satirized in his first novel, Vercoquin et le plancton. It was written in 1943, but published in 1946. After the war he played trumpet in the Left Bank caves, penned several hundred songs, mader a reputation as a cabaret singer, and wrote reviews for the magazine Le Jazz-Hot. He also contributed to Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes Vian’s most beautiful songs include the pacifist ‘Le déserteur’ (1954), which sold thousands of records. Written in the form of a letter, addressed to Monsieur le Président, the song outraged the French patriots, and was forbidden to broadcast on the radio. The song was composed by Harold Berg and was first performed by Vian’s friend Marcel Mouloudji.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946) was penned under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan in ten days in the hard-boiled style of crime fiction. Vian had made a wager that he can compose a best-seller novel, and when a copy of the book – opened to scene where the ptotagonist kills his mistress – was found in the hotel room of a murder victim, it gained a success beyond anyone’s expectations. “Vian’s book has a certain weary, mysogynistic humor – the chicks fuck like rabbits, or minks, and our hero gets a certain charge, or arrives at the mercy of a nearly unbearable ecstasy, out of his private knowledge that they are being fucked by a nigger: he is committing the crime for which his brother was murdered, he is fucking these cunts with his brother’s prick. And he comes three times, so to speak, each time he comes, once for his brother, and once for the “little death” of the orgasms to which he always brings the ladies, and uncontrollably, for the real death to which he is determined to bring them.” (James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work) The book sold 100,000 copies before it was banned – Vian himself was fined 100,000 francs. At the court Vian insisted that it was not his own work but a translation of a book by the American writer Vernon Sullivan, and went on to provide a biography for his “alter-negro”. The pseudonym combined the names of Joe Sullivan, an American pianist, and Paul Vernon, a French jazz musician, who played in Claude Abadie’s band alongside with Vian.

In addition to American jazz, Vian was familiar with American mystery and detective novels, although he never visited the US – he translated Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain for Gallimard’s “Série Noire”. In addition he translated works by Nelson Algren, Strindberg, Pirandello, and Brendan Behan, and from the field of science fiction A.E. van Vogt, William Tenn, Henry Kuttner, and Ray Bradbury. New Vernon Sullivan thrillers followed in 1947 and 1948. At the same time Vian produced more or less serious novels, plays and poems. A short opera, Fiesta, which tells the story of a mysterious shipwrecked man, was written for Darius Milhaud. The opera was first performed in West Berlin in 1948. Vian also acted small parts in films and wrote film scenarios. In 1958, he and the director Louis Malle persuaded Miles Davis to play the music for Malle’s film Lift to the Scaffold.

In the preface of L’écume des jours (1947) Vian wrote – echoing in his uncompromising tone Voltaire: “There are only two things: love, all sorts of love, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans ot Duke Ellington. Everything else ought to go because everything else is ugly.” In America its 1968 translation, Mood Indigo, referred to Duke Ellington’s famous composition. The tale of amour fou (‘mad love’) was set in the world where all material is organic, an eel sucks pineapple flavored toothpaste through the cold water tap, and elephants walk on the streets. Vian used deliberately naïve style with surrealistic images. The protagonist, Colin, is a rich young man, who is surrounded by his intellectual friends, one of whom is obsessed with the philosopher Jean Pulse Hearthe. Colin meets a pretty girl, Chloé. A strange illness is eating her away. “The corridor door would not open. All that was left was a narrow space leading to Chloé’s bedroom from the entrance. Isis went first, and Nicholas followed her. He seemed stunned. Something bulged inside his jacked and from time to time he put his hand on his chest. Isis looked at the bed before she went into the room. Chloé was still surrounded by flowers. Her hands, stretched out on the blankets, were hardly able to hold the big white orchid that was in them. It looked grey by the side of her diaphanous skin.” A mysterious water-lily grows inside Chloé’s chest, Colin gives her more flowers, and she dies. Chloé is buried in a pauper’s grave, and the verger and pallbearers dance away.

Vian’s avant-garde plays had much connections to the theater of absurd, especially the work of Alfred Jarry. L’équarissage pour tousfrom 1946 was a “paramilitary vaudeville in one long act.” Set in a Normandy knacker’s yard, it depicted farcical marriage problems of a family on D-Day. Their home is destroyed by wartime allies, the Free French, and other military personel. Les Bâtisseurs d’Empire ou le Schmurz (1959) was about a bourgeois family whose new apartment is invaded by a terrifying noise, and an annoying being, the Schmürz. The play was staged in England in 1962 and in New York in 1968. The General’s Teatime was first presented in France seven years after Vian’s death. It portrayed war as a “nursery tea-party,” and mocked military leaders, church and the government. The play was inspired by General Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story which Vian translated into French.

Several of Vian’s books reflected his interest in science fiction, although sf made up only a small part of his activities. In Vercoquin et le plancton joys of life are threatened by standardization, represented by the Association Française de Normalisation. L’Automne à Pékin(1947) was a desert utopia, set in the imaginary land of Exopotamia, where a pointless railway is constructed. One way of arriving the country is by taking the 975 bus. Occasionally the driver becomes insane and drives to Exopotamia instead of taking the normal route through Paris. No extra charge. L’herbe rouge (1950) was a time-machine story, in which one character is haunted by a double.

Vian’s first marriage, to Michèle Léglise, ended in 1952 in divorce, and two years later he married Ursula Kübler, a Swiss dancer. Although Vian was not taken seriously as a writer during his life time, he was a famous personality among the existentialist and post-surrealistic circles of Paris. In 1952 he was inducted as a Transcendent Satrap of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, an unconventional literary association founded to perpetuate the memory of Alfred Jarry. On June 23, 1959, the poorly made film version of I’ll Spit on Your Graves finished Vian accrording to Louis Malle: “I’ve always thought that Boris died of shame from having seen what they’d done to his book. Like anything else, the cinema can kill.” The film was banned in Finland.